Author and columnist Bongani Bingwa. File image.
Author and columnist Bongani Bingwa. File image.

B’s Bonnet: It is unforgivable that some are using Covid-19 as an opportunity to loot

By Time of article published Sep 4, 2021

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By Bongani Bingwa

Johannesburg - Never let a good crisis go to waste! This is a now famous line used to great effect by Rahm Emmanuel, former Chief of Staff to American president Barrack Obama. It was a central pillar in the administration’s response to the global financial crisis of 2008.

It cemented the 44th president’s place in US history because his policy programme helped the country and arguably the world to avoid another Great Depression. As Bloomberg noted, by the time he left office American job growth had logged its longest expansion dating back to 1939.

Of course the quote cannot be attributed to Emmanuel – but belongs to one of the great orators of the last century, Winston Churchill. But to the epigram Emmanuel added, “What I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”

Covid-19 has been a crisis that has wrought untold economic devastation around the world. Certainly the human cost has been hard to bear with every country affected globally. Who of us does not know someone who has succumbed to the deadly pandemic?

In the initial stages, the South African government did not let the crisis go to waste. Following the first confirmed reported case on March 5, 2020, the country adopted a risk-adjusted strategy and went into a hard lockdown within three weeks. This was to contain and mitigate the spread of the virus, as cases seemed to be growing exponentially. There were genuine fears that in some of the densely populated areas with poor housing and sanitation, the pandemic was going to decimate communities.

Whilst President Ramaphosa was recognised for responding swiftly to the challenge, the star of the show was his Health minister, Dr Zweli Mkhize. Even as the criticisms of the handling of the crisis in later months grew – from the slow procurement of vaccines to the ban on the sales of alcohol, cigarettes, open sandals and even hot chicken! – Mkhize remained a voice of reason and was trusted by many as the man who held our hand through the unprecedented difficulties.

And then the Digital Vibes scandal broke. Under his watch a little known communications company run by his friends and former staffers was irregularly awarded a R150m contract to communicate government’s message on the pandemic. The Special Investigating Unit now tells us that almost from the beginning the former minister allegedly placed pressure on officials to approve contracts with the company despite red flags being raised by National Treasury.

We also now know that the pandemic coincided with the appointment of this company initially to communicate messaging on the proposed National Health Insurance but quickly pivoting to Covid-19. It would appear that this was a special purpose vehicle created to do what the minister, his family and friends could not do before.

He tried to hang on but as the clamour for his dismissal grew shriller he resigned from Cabinet before any action could be taken against him. It is worth noting that Mkhize remains a member of Parliament and has not fallen on his political sword. In the see-sawing world of politics he is clearly not ruling out a comeback.

In the meantime as hundreds continue to die on a daily basis, is it any wonder that the communication around the pandemic has been so poor?

Mkhuleko Hlengwa, the chairperson of Parliament’s standing committee on public accounts (Scopa), says this type of corruption is a crime against humanity. It is unforgivable that some people see an “opportunity to loot amidst the worst global health pandemic of our lifetime”.

It also begs the question: if someone like Mkhize, a senior member of Cabinet and a former treasurer-general of the ANC, with a future so dazzlingly bright, can be implicated criminally in this, how many others are using our collective crises as opportunities to score? To do what they could not before? How long have they been doing it and getting away with it because we do not know?

We have very necessary policy choices to make and some will be tough on an already stretched but limited tax base. From universal health coverage to social security reform, we cannot simply let millions of South Africans fall through the cracks. But how is a sceptical public not justified in seeing red behind every proposal? We now find ourselves not debating the merits of particular ideas but wondering who is about to hit the jackpot?

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